IIT Bay Area’s Leadership Conference addresses tech, Indian politics, and the institution’s future

Ritu Jha-


With the theme Science and Technology for Social Wellbeing, IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Bay Area hosted its Leadership Conference where IIT directors, alumni entrepreneurs and industry experts talked about the many facets of the institute’s reach from what IIT in India needs to whether IIT was helpful in building a company, how it feels when Indian politicians mix science and mythology, and, of course, a startup showcase where IIT alums turned entrepreneurs showed off their products.

Prof. Sarit Kumar Das, director, and professor at IIT Ropar, Punjab, India, a speaker at the  IIT Directors Panel stalking about India’s startup culture said to several hundred of IITians  — graduates and other alumni of the institute – that India is changing in terms of just one thing: It has understood the value of innovation. Ten years back, nobody thought about innovation, and today startups are becoming a way of life, Das said.

“It is here (Silicon Valley) where we need your help because this is just the beginning. We really don’t know they quit the job and try to do something, there is nobody to guide,” Das said.

Urging the Silicon Valley-based IIT alumni entrepreneurs to come to Ropar to help aspiring entrepreneurs back home and help in framing a company, scale it, how to implement ideas and take it to a global level.

He said that IIT Ropar wants to become the center of excellence. You can see in 10 more years this would be one of the jewels in the crown in Indian educational scenario, he said.

Prof. Pramod Pathak, dean, IIT (ISM) Dhanbad, taking jibes with other directors and alumni, said, “Putting us in the bracket of new IITians will rather be not fair. We are in the business since 1926 and will in a few years be completing 100 years. That way experience is on our side.”

Giving a brief history about IIT-ISM, he said, Dhanbad is politically called the coal capital of India, and the institution was started by the British for coal mining.

Now, IIT-ISM is dependent on the Indian government to help the government in making this industry flourish and help the country in attaining the energy.

“We are now delving into a new area like artificial intelligence, deep learning,” he said. “We have one objective in mind: we want to use diversified areas to strengthen the core, because our core still remains the mining and mineral industry, which is very important for a country like India.”

Highlighting IIT-ISM’s unique strengths, he said that mining is a traditional industry and has come a long way since it started, and today a lot of technology is involved in mining, so the institute’s purpose is to make mining, safer, cleaner, responsible and at the same time, energy efficient.

Pathak told indica on the sidelines of the conference, visiting Silicon Valley for the first time and representing IIT-ISM Dhanbad, “We have come here to position IIT-ISM as an institution where artificial intelligence and sophisticated technology has a lot of roles to play.”

“The common assumption is mining has nothing to do with these kinds of technology. So, it’s a myth that has to be shattered. ISM is now entering into the cutting-edge technology to make mining safe and responsible and productive and, of course, clean,” Pathak said. “India needs energy security.”

When asked why now and why there was a delay in adopting technology, he said IIT -ISM was established in 2016 when AI and machine learning were there but have to be redefined.

“And the kind of technology we are now looking to mining is new that would predict accidents and pollution, and you can predict workers’ behavior and many more, like averting accidents,” he said.

Another keynote speaker was IIT veteran and former McKinsey chief Rajat Gupta, shared how Bhagvad Gita provided him solace and spiritual comfort during the two years he spent in jail for insider trading. He talked with indica about what keeps him motivated.

“Helping others, mentoring people and making an impact in society. That is the purpose of life,” said Gupta, who still claims his innocence, saying he was a victim of plea bargaining. “I find it’s one of the important things, is to help other people. I have always been the same. This has increased my resolve, that is.”

During the directors’ panel, a question was raised on the mixing of science and mythology by political leaders. Deepak Bhagat, IIT Kanpur class of 1973 and one of the senior panelists, told indica that when the government raises such issues people feel embarrassed by some of the statements that have come out of the BJP government.

“I am a BJP supporter, and I am open about it, but sometimes the statements they make, I think am I doing the right thing, They should be doing the right thing,” he said, pointing to the  Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein theories raised in recent past. “We are entering into the age of knowledge where data and analytics are improving your assertions and are going to be more important. When ministers make such a statement, I think it’s the image of all of us, 1.3 billion people, which is not right.”

He added, “Whatever they said may be true, I don’t know, but you have to prove it, just can’t say what is written in the text.”

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